Dec 20, 2016
Reading Luke 2:1-20
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This sermon was originally preached Christmas Eve 2014 but this is a new recording of that message.
This year in most Uniting Churches in Queensland we are being encouraged to use the Theme “Find refuge this Christmas” for our Christmas services. I’ll get to the Christmas story we heard read from Luke in a moment but first I want to tell a story and then give some context from other parts of the Bible.
Those of you who live in Toowoomba [Queensland Australia] may remember that in 2011 there was an unseasonal tropical storm on Easter Saturday. So much rain fell in a short period of time that all of Easterfest [Australia’s largest Christian music festival] was washed out. The main tent collapsed and at the camping site not a tent was left standing. Clothes and young people were soaked through. Now as it happens this Church, St Stephen’s is the closest to Queens Park were most of the festival takes place. That night I received a call and forty Uniting Church young people sheltered in our hall for the night. I must confess I was a bit upset that I could not really offer them anything in the way of food or bedding, but they were very happy to simply have a secure refuge from the storm, warm and dry, not to mention real rather than portable toilets. We even got a write up in the church’s Queensland magazine Journey.
In the Christmas story we just heard, Mary and Joseph find refuge and I’m sure given the circumstances they would have been really grateful to find that shelter and refuge for the birth of their child just as the young people were grateful in 2011.
There are times in every human life when we need shelter. All of us at some time have needed literal shelter. We have been caught outside in a storm, or we have been out on a very hot or a very cold day, and we look for the refuge of a warm snug room or a deep shady verandah. Not only do we need this literal refuge, we also need other kinds of refuge from things such as noisy children, the mad busyness of life, the never ending demands of family, or work. We need shelter from fear, and from the condemning glare of those who don’t much like us. Perhaps we need shelter from the intrusive nature of modern technology and social media.
To take the literal need for refuge and shelter in Australia the lucky country. One in 200 or over 100 000 people in Australia do not have a place to call home - a refuge. While these people need a literal shelter, like all of us they have those other needs for refuge and shelter. We all long for a refuge for a place of security. A warm place to shelter from the storm. A church hall with real toilets, a stable, a feed trough, a loving community or family or church to support us in our time of need.
Time and time again in the Bible God is described as just such a shelter, or refuge. In psalm 46 verse one the Bible says that God is our refuge and strength. Isaiah 25:4 describes God as “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.” (Isaiah 25:4, NRSV). In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV) In John 10 Jesus describes himself as the sheepfold, the place of safety for the sheep at night, out of the weather away from the thieves and the wolves. In Matt 23:37 Jesus speaks of himself as a mother hen who shelters us under her wings. And the call of the Christian life, what it means to live out your faith is to extend this shelter, this refuge to others.
So in Matthew 25 Jesus tells us that whenever we feed or clothe or give a stranger in need refuge and welcome, we welcome Jesus himself. In a similar way when he sends the disciples out on a mission trip in Matthew 10 he says that whenever any of the disciples are welcomed and given refuge, Jesus is welcomed.
It is not surprising that the early church chose this story of the birth of Jesus to put into the Bible. It is a story of welcoming the stranger, a story of refuge and a story about how some animals and some humble shepherds are the first people to welcome God revealed in a new way in the world. These first Christians believed that in Jesus God personally experienced what it is to be homeless, born in a borrowed room among animals and laid in a feed trough for a bed.
So they believed that God who was their rock, their shelter, their hope and their refuge, had become a helpless baby who needed refuge amongst them. For them it was a sign that God truly was love, God truly was with them, God would go to any length to show and share that love, to offer that hope and to offer that shelter.
More than this they believed that because God was with them, because, God took shelter with the imprisoned, with the hungry, with the sick, with the homeless, that they were part of God’s shelter too. As imperfect as it was the church began to try to be a witness of that shelter for others. Those first believers who brought us this story knew that ultimately it is God’s work to provide and be the refuge, but they believed the church should reflect that refuge.
So it is because of this that the first hospitals and orphanages and the first free education, and the anti slavery movements and the freedom trains, and the greatest energy in the civil rights movements all came from this faith which says God is our shelter, and God shelters with us. God is our refuge, God found refuge with us and we will be a refuge, a shelter for others. Those institutions of refuge like the orphanages we have sometimes found out in recent years to our great shame have been less than perfect. Indeed for a significant minority they have become places of fear and abuse rather than refuge. There is no excuse for this.
The most I can say is that we are sorry, and make the point that in the culture in which Jesus was born, an unwanted or orphaned child or illegitimate child (as Jesus could have been) had no place to go. If the family would not have them they were left out in the open to die. But since the church began there has been a shelter, there are orphanages, there were poor houses, and leper colonies. The church became a refuge, imperfect like a stable, or a cave but a refuge none the less reflecting the belief that God is our refuge.
Are you in some storm? Is health, or finance, or broken relationships, or some threat hanging over you? Are you in the middle of the driving rain exposed to the elements? If so the church has found and believed over the years that God is our refuge. Christians have found over the ages that in the worst storms of life, from the literal ones to the storms among nations, in our families, and hearts and minds that God gives, strength and hope and refuge. God knows what it is to be homeless and far away from the familiar. That is what we celebrate today and every Christmas. God who took refuge with us, is our strength and our refuge.
So find refuge this Christmas and every day of your life, with the one who found refuge with us.